Theology

Julian of Norwich and the Triumph of Theological Eros

“By love, God has revealed himself and given himself to [us]. He has thus provided the definitive, superabundant answer to the questions that man asks himself about the meaning and purpose of his life.” According to Christianity, “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.” Traditional Christianity primarily understood God not simply as a God of agape but equally a God of eros (desiring love). The most important element to Christianity’s theological anthropology is the desiring love of man and its binding tie to the desiring love of God.

God is love and desires love, and humans are created in the image of God which means that humans have a consuming desire for love and the source of that pulling love. Eros, that desiring love innate in humans that seeks union with the sublime beauty that is God, is the principal force by which salvation is consummated. In Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich outlines the forceful thrust of desiring love in drawing humans closer to God, in which that union between humanity and divinity is made whole again—which is what salvation is: the restoration of the image of love as a partaker in divinity. In doing so, Julian highlights the necessary and natural role that desire plays in drawing humans to God which leads to the experiences of beauty, love, serenity, and happiness.

The idea of “self-emptying” on the Cross is a dominant focus of Christian theology. At the Crucifixion Jesus Christ demonstrated his love for all by emptying himself entirely upon the Cross to bring about the reconciliation of humanity and divinity in traditional soteriological interpretations. It is considered the ultimate sign of God’s love for humanity. Lee C. Barrett wrote that early Christianity understood salvation primarily as “the state of being in ultimate communion with God” which came through the love of man being raised up to meet God symbolized by the raising of the god-man Christ on the Cross. 

Saint Augustine also wrote on the proper ordering of desiring love leading to that intentional communion with God: Self to others, self and others to world, self, others, and world to God.  This, of course, is not possible unless God has a desiring love for humans that draws humans nearer to him and that humans retain an innate desire for beauty, love, wholeness, and happiness, which is properly sourced in God.

It is within this intellectual framework of Christianity that Julian inherits and builds upon. Far from any radical break, in the sense unorthodox or heterodox innovation, Julian is within the mainstream of traditional Christian thought in understanding eros as the principal and highest love that draws humans to God (and that God reciprocates this desiring love for creation by becoming incarnate in the world so that humans shall have the image of loving desire restored). It is in her writings that the role of desire as the primary force of the intention of union is made visibly manifest to the point that one should be able to realize the importance of eros within the schema of salvation. It is not God’s agape to an undesiring Elect that is salvation, but God’s incarnated and imputed desiring love (which is the gift of grace itself) that draws humans—who still naturally desire sublime eudemonia—to him that is the summit of salvation (which is the fulfilled life in God who is the source of all things sublime).

The importance of eros is established by Julian at the very beginning of her work, “These Revelations were shewed to a…creature afore desired three gifts of God.” From the start, Julian reiterates the longstanding Christian tradition that humans are creatures with innate desire, which is, properly, the desire for the source of that love itself: God. Only the consummation of this desiring love can satiate our natural yearnings. The heart is restless until it finds rest in God after all.

Julian is upfront about her desire for God, “As to the First [gift], methought I had some feeling in the Passion of Christ, but yet I desired more by the grace of God.”  The desire that Julian exhibits for union is the natural desire embedded in humans as images of God. Again, the Fall never extinguished the flame of desire in rational beings, as St. Thomas Aquinas also explained, but corrupted humans that—without God—they could never consistently choose God. The Fall corrupted the relationship of the imago Dei (as human) to the source of image itself. Humanity now suffers the inability to properly order and express a fulfilling (or fulfilled) desire until that desire is reoriented back to the source from which all beautiful and good things flow which restores the broken relationship of the image to image-giver.

Furthermore, Julian emphatically states what her first vision is and why it is important to understand that the Trinity is God and God is the Trinity.  “For the Trinity is God: God is the Trinity; the Trinity is our Maker and Keeper, the Trinity is our everlasting love and everlasting joy and bliss, by our Lord Jesus Christ.” She also encapsulates that God is “our everlasting love and everlasting joy and bliss.” Thus, the desire that humans have imbedded into their ontology cannot be satisfied by anything less than God. 

There is no other way around the logic of her statement. Human desire for wholeness is something good and natural, and desire is something leading one to God who is “our Maker and Keeper.” And as Julian makes clear, the ontological desire in humans that causes one to seek the source of pulling desire “is as good as beholding.” The draw of desire itself is a good and the seeking is equally as worthy as the beholding or attainment of God.

Julian is quick to understand that God’s love is a love that includes eros (not that she is discounting agape). God desired to be with humans, suffered and died for the restoration of eros, and thereby helps calling humans back to him. “Therefore I desired to suffer with Him,” she writes. This statement is directly reflective of Julian’s understanding of the nature of human desire and that desire is the most integral component for the fulfillment of imago Dei. “And thus was I learned, to mine understanding, that seeking is as good as beholding, for the time that He will suffer the soul to be in travail. It is God’s will that we seek Him, to the beholding of Him, for by that He shall shew us Himself of His special grace when He will.” 

For Julian, there is a natural and innate desire in the human person who is “seeking” something beyond the self. What is more remarkable, and important, is that she asserts that eros itself, that seeking of desire, “is as good as beholding.” This means that the desire that is propelling her seeking of God and is every bit as good and natural as the one who has beheld the wondrous marvel, and magnanimous beauty, that is God. Without the desiring heart that moves one closer to God one cannot enjoy the beholding of God which comes after the joy of seeking.

Julian imparts to her readers why this desiring want is good. “God, of Thy Goodness, give me Thyself: for Thou art enough to me, and I may nothing ask that is less that may be full worship to Thee; and if I ask anything that is less, ever me wanteth,—but only in Thee I have all.” Her plea to God is that God reveal himself and give, or self-empty, himself over to Julian who desperately and passionately desires God. This reflects the Augustinian understanding of imago Dei that we can no longer perceive the source of image, but that humans nevertheless still desire something deep and sublime. It is Julian’s desire to be united with the pulling source of human desire that is drawing her closer to God. The statement is not one of arrogance, or works, but one that still reflects the naturality of desire integrally embedded as part of the imago Dei.

Like Aristophanes’ explanation of eros in Plato’s Symposium, where erosis the result of detachment from our inner half which propels the desire of humans to reunite with their lost half, the retention of desire after the Fall—though corrupted—still compels one to seek wholeness that can only be satisfied by the source of the image of love who is God. Eros, then, when understood through the doctrine of the Fall, is what compels humans to seek (re)union with God. God’s loving desire for humans brings the two together through the intention of desiring union through the incarnation, death, and resurrection, which consummates humanity’s desiring impulse.

This constitutes the second part of the equation of human eros and God’s eros: The intention of union between the two. Human desire and God’s desire form the double intentionality that draws God and man together. As Julian knew and wrote, a happy and fulfilled life is only possible through desire and the union with the source of divine love itself. 

Thus, the desire that humans still exhibit is intentionally drawing one to God. Desire signifies the need for God. And in this intention of union, humanity and divinity are united—which is the restoration of the imago Dei and the imago Dei perfected. As Julian writes, “I understood that we be now, in our Lord’s meaning, in His Cross with Him in His pains and His Passion, dying; and we, willingly abiding in the same Cross with His help and His grace unto the last point, suddenly He shall change His Cheer to us, and we shall be with Him in Heaven.” To be consumed by the desire to be with God is the highest calling and manifestation of joy.

Here, Julian makes a forceful and powerful claim of the power, and joy, of being in communion with God in his Passion. As Julian has made clear, she has desired to behold God, be with God, seeking after God, and wanting to know God; all of which are indications of her loving desire for God and the role that desire has been playing in moving her to reach out to God. “Give me thyself… but only in Thee I have all,” she writes. God did, of course, empty himself for her (and all) at Golgotha. Julian understands the consummation of sublime eros as occurring at the Passion of Christ where she sees the bleeding head and dripping blood of Christ, not as something repulsive that turns her away from God, but as the penultimate pull of her affectivity toward God and the penultimate expression of God’s desire to be with men to the point of bloody suffering and death where God literally self-emptied himself to the world.

While it is true that it was at Golgotha that the culminating moment of loving desire produced the self-emptying of God to humanity, this is not the end of the story. “And this I saw: that what time we see needs wherefor we pray, then our good Lord followeth us, helping our desire; and when we of His special grace plainly behold Him, seeing none other needs, then we follow Him and He draweth us unto Him by love.” It is God’s love, now infused in humans, that allows humans to live lives of love in the here and now. This infused grace, rather than simply imputed grace, gives greater meaning and significance to love and life on earth.

Julian also highlights how prayer is a form and expression of desire more than dry ritual. That is, Julian understands prayer as also reflective of the union of God and man. In prayer, as Julian states, the human desire to be drawn to God and his love is an earnest and natural reflection of human yearning to follow God and be in union with God. The act of prayer, since prayer is an act, embodies that intention of union with the divine.

It is evident in Julian that the desire of humanity and the desire of God works in tandem with one another to draw one another to each other. Without desire human happiness is impossible. Without God’s desire Christ would never have become incarnate in the world. Without human desire being drawn to God, and God’s desire condescending into creation, there could be no intention of union leading to integrated union of the two. And without the union of desiring loves the image would remain ruptured. 

The power of the Cross is the desiring pull that comes upon the desire of humans, redirecting desire back to the proper source and fount of desire itself.

Julian concludes that the salvation is rooted in eros (both the desire of humans as imago Dei and the desire of God that brings God and man face-to-face). “God willeth that we understand [this], desiring with all our heart to have knowing of them more and more unto the time that we be fulfilled: for fully to know them is nought else but endless joy and bliss that we shall have in Heaven, which God willeth should be begun here in knowing of His love.” Eros is not something shameful, or something to be shunned. It is in desire that humans are drawn to the fount and source of Love. This is the true restoration of imago Dei. God desires us and we desire God. In the double desire exhibited by God and humanity the two are brought into communion with each other in total self-giving; God’s self-giving to man and man’s self-giving to God. As Julian makes clear, this is salvation in its fullest and most pristine form.

“Whom do I have in heaven but you? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides you.” Eros is the most beautiful thing in the world; it is the very essence of being, and that which draws mere mortals to, and into union with, divinity. Desiring love conquers all things. Julian understands that one should yield to that desiring love, for in that comes union with the most sublime eros that comes from God. This, and only this, restores man’s ruptured relationship with Divine Love. That requires humility and receptivity to the love of God, much like with Mary at the Annunciation.

Eros is integral to the nature of man and an essential part of being made in the image of God. As Julian ends her work boldly proclaiming, “In our making we had beginning; but the love wherein He made us was in Him from without beginning: in which love we have our beginning. And all this shall we see in God, without end.” The divinity of eros has always been Christianity’s most powerful and important claim and what distinguished it from other Greek and Roman philosophical traditions. Eros is a sacramental gift. For it is through eros that life is found, and the highest joy made possible, when desire leads one to the Good, True, and Beautiful. Christianity did not destroy eros. Christianity is the culmination and fulfillment of the desire of man and the nations. Christianity, and only Christianity, brings forth the triumph of eros as it directs desire to “the Love that moves the sun and other stars.”

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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